The therapy owl that made a little boy’s heart soar again

The therapy owl that made a little boy’s heart soar again…not to mention the skunk, Shetland pony and alpacas that doctors swear help to heal their very poorly patients

  • Evidence suggests that animals can help people with a host of problems
  • Hospital’s and care centres across the country have adopted animal therapy
  • The trend first started in America but has quickly spread across the UK 

Most of us have heard of therapy dogs that go into hospitals and hospices to bring comfort. 

But with increasing evidence to suggest that animals can help people with a host of problems, from autism and behavioural issues to depression and addiction, more unusual creatures are getting in on the act and, following a trend that began in America, even working in the NHS. Lorraine Fisher meets the animal doctors . . . 

Teddy the Shetland pony (left) visits children at the Shooting Star Chase children’s hospice in Surrey

The tiny pony that never wants to say goodbye

Imagine lying in your hospice bed and hearing a little snuffle, then opening your eyes to see a tiny horse staring at you, wanting a cuddle.

That’s what happens for the children at Christopher’s, the Shooting Star Chase children’s hospice in Surrey, who are regularly visited by Teddy the Shetland pony.

‘They absolutely love him,’ says Anne Bridgman, head of care. ‘We’ve a lot of children in wheelchairs or with poor sight or profound disabilities and it’s wonderful for them to be able to see, touch and smell him.’

Teddy (pictured) is a therapy animal who goes to children’s hospices to raise morale

Activity co-ordinator Barbara Hibberd agrees. ‘We have children who go from never having seen a horse to brushing him and walking him around the garden. You can see their confidence grow.’

Before a visit from Teddy there is huge excitement with children such as Miles, 11, and Summer, ten, desperate to see their small pal.

‘One young lady idolises him completely,’ says Barbara. ‘She’ll arrive here hours before he’s due, and sit at the window waiting. Before, she wasn’t confident with animals at all but now she even has a dog.’

Teddy also visits old people’s homes and schools as well as the children’s hospice in Surrey

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If a child can’t get to Teddy, he’ll go to them: ‘We take him into the bedroom and he puts his head on the bed while the child touches his face.’

Teddy is owned by event rider Alice Goring, 26, and visits Christopher’s, old people’s homes and schools.

She said: ‘I had to desensitise him to noise and train him to walk next to a wheelchair but he gets as much out of it as everyone. He never wants to leave!’

The grateful rescue cat that inspired a man to walk 

Sox the cat helps patients at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability, West Hill, Putney, London (left), Sox (right) lives in the manager’s office at the hospital

Try as he might, the man just couldn’t master walking. After a brain injury, he was trying to regain control of his legs.

But then the patient at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability in South-West London heard there was a cat called Sox living on the ground floor who loved a cuddle.

Sox the cat and Tracy DiPalma, Tracy says that Sox is a ‘placid cat’

It was the spur he needed.

Every day, he’d walk farther with two assistants towards his furry goal until he made it.

‘By the end of his stay he could get there by himself,’ recalls therapy manager Katie Richards.

The cat was a stray, adopted from a rescue centre a year before by hospital PA Tracy DiPalma. ‘We’d had lots of therapy dogs come in,’ she explains, ‘and we thought it might be nice to get a cat.’

Tabby Sox (left), who lives in the director of nursing’s office, was a revelation. ‘He’s so placid,’ says Tracy, 55. ‘He loves being stroked. He seems to know what his job is — when he sees a wheelchair he goes over to say hello.’

In fact, so loved is the rather spoiled Sox — a finalist at this year’s Cats Protection Outstanding Rescue Cat Awards — that because patients keep giving him treats, he is constantly on a diet.

The owl that brought a child back to life 

Alex Goodwin (pictured), 11, from Leicestershire, with ‘Jess’ a four month old Barn Owl pictured at Cheshire Falconry, Sandiway

Alex Goodwin has been through far too much for an 11-year-old. After having a rare form of bone cancer diagnosed when he was eight, he has had to undergo radical surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy to survive. But Alex has a secret helper: Murray the owl. 

Every few months his devoted father, Jeff, drives him 100 miles from their home in Leicestershire to Cheshire, where he gets to fly the bird. It has helped give Alex his childhood back.

‘Alex closed down when he was dealing with his illness,’ says Jeff. ‘He went through very invasive treatment that left him traumatised and he was having nightmares.’ Murray’s owner, Anita Morris, heard about Alex via Twitter two-and-a-half years ago and went to visit him. ‘She gave him a reason to survive,’ says Jeff. 

Alex (left) also enjoys spending time with Murray, a five year old Burrowing Owl (right)

‘Being able to connect with Murray gave him a focus and helped him grow in confidence.’ Now Alex, who is out of his wheelchair, is training to become a falconer. 

It’s all thanks to Anita, a psychologist who set up her therapy business, Hack Back CIC, in 2005 when she recognised the power that birds of prey had to help heal humans. 

She got Murray, a burrowing owl, in 2013, then a barn owl, an African spotted eagle owl and a tiny white-faced owl. Anita visits groups, individuals and schools. 

‘One of my first experiences was of eight women in the criminal justice system,’ she says. 

‘They had got into petty crime because their selfesteem was so low. By the end they were flying the owls. It had a massive impact because we’d say, “You’ve achieved this. What else can you do?”. 

‘A lot of my work now is with children with autism. [The birds] help them understand the subtleties of body language.

‘Birds don’t judge. An owl will fly to someone with a severe disability, which gives that person a sense of equality.’

Skunk that doesn’t make a stink    

Stoosh the skunk thankfully doesn’t stink and has been helping patients at the Critterish Allsorts in Kidderminster

The patient had been to every animal-assisted therapy session at the psychiatric hospital for a year. Each time he would just walk silently round the room, paying no attention, then leave.

‘But then I took along Stoosh the skunk,’ says Dale Preece-Kelly, who runs Critterish Allsorts in Kidderminster, ‘and this guy, who had paranoid schizophrenia, pointed at his lap.

‘I put Stoosh on it and she curled up and went to sleep like she always does. He sat there for 50 minutes, then left with a big smile on his face.

‘An hour later, I was getting ready to leave and he came running over to me with a picture he’d drawn of Stoosh. It was great. Over the following weeks he came regularly and started to talk more, and eventually he was well enough to be released.’

Dale, 50, started his therapy business after suffering two heart attacks in 2010 and losing his job. His four-year-old son had been waxing lyrical about the family pets, so a teacher said he should bring them in to school.

A year later, teachers from a psychiatric hospital asked Dale to bring his animals to their garden party. ‘We noticed that the patients were calmer than normal, and spoke more.’

Now Dale takes his menagerie, which includes snakes and a ferret, to prisons and psychiatric units. But Stoosh (right) is the star. ‘People often say “bring any animal except the skunk — it’ll stink”. But she doesn’t. She smells beautiful.’

The one eared rabbit that helps disfigured children   

Cameron Edmonds (pictured) has been helped by Peter the one reared rabbit 

The little boy sat in his wheelchair, alone and lost to the world. With a severe learning disability and physically disabled since birth, he was locked away inside himself.

Then he met Peter, the one-eared rabbit.

‘We’d put animal after animal in front of him but he ignored them all,’ explains owner Amanda Poulton. ‘But then he saw Peter. He reached out and touched his soft fur, then suddenly this huge smile lit up his face and he started laughing.

‘From that moment on, whenever we arrived at his play centre, he’d start screaming until I put the rabbit in front of him. He was absolutely transformed.’

Breakthroughs like this are exactly why the 45-year-old from Basildon, Essex, started non-profitmaking Alamanda Therapy Animals in 2011.

Peter the one-eared rabbit (pictured) is much loved by the residents at Alamanda Therapy Animals

‘My mum was in a hospice and I’d take my American miniature horse Applause to see her,’ says Amanda. ‘The other residents loved him and that’s how it all started.’

Wanting to add to her stock of therapy animals, she decided on Rex rabbits, which have an unusually friendly temperament.

‘The moment I saw Peter and his late sister Flopsy, I knew I had to have them.

They had both lost an ear because their mother had over-groomed them and I knew it would mean a lot to the disfigured children they would meet. We would be able to say “this rabbit is different too but he’s still really cool”.’

Now seven-year-old Peter has plenty of fans, including teenager Cameron Edmonds (inset with the rabbit), who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and Brandon Styles, 18, who attends Saint Francis Hospice in Romford.

‘They just love sitting there, stroking him,’ says Amanda. ‘It’s really calming.’

She and her furry crew have brought comfort to people in hospitals, hospices, care homes and sometimes people’s own homes. They have worked with soldiers suffering from PTSD and will soon visit an anorexia unit.

‘I have a rule,’ says Amanda. ‘I’m not allowed to show any emotion when I’m there. When I leave I can go around the corner and cry, but my job is to bring some joy to a difficult life and help families make memories. It’s a privilege.’

The adorable alpaca mascots   

These cute alpacas have been helping out visitors to the Marie Curie Hospice in Edinburgh 

With their huge eyes and comical faces, the alpaca visitors are popular with everyone at the Marie Curie Hospice in Edinburgh.

In fact, the hospice has made them its official mascot.

‘They’re beautiful and very gentle,’ says day therapies manager Gail Holloway. ‘When people see them the change is instant — they are laughing, smiling and absorbed. There’s a real sense of fun and joy.’

When the alpacas’ owner, Bob Crosbie, offered to bring his herd to the hospice a few years ago, Gail agreed immediately.

Deane Robinson (right) has cerebral palsy and has been helped greatly by the affection of the alpacas

‘Often people who are unwell find their experiences limited and it’s difficult to do things with family and friends.

‘Meeting the alpacas helps to carry them, and they talk about the visit for a long time afterwards.’

Bob, 62, set up BobCat Alpacas with his wife Cath after retiring from the Civil Service. His initial plan was to have a smallholding with some alpacas to guard the chickens he was going to buy.

‘But I never bought chickens. Instead I realised alpacas were gorgeous to work with and bought a small herd from other farmers.’

While the females are used to breed, the males are employed for therapy at special schools and hospices. ‘They’re trained to interact with people,’ says Bob. ‘They don’t do any tricks, they just make people feel calm and less stressed.’

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